Elka EK44 & EK22 Synths
Which is better, analogue or digital? Elka back the horse both ways by providing synths of both persuasions, with modular versions of both, too. Paul Wiffen thinks they're onto a winner, whichever way you look.
While some synth players lust after the latest digital instruments and others mourn the capabilities of analogue machines, Elka produce two new synthesisers that offer musicians the choice. We test them both.
Elka. What does the name mean to you? Home keyboards, probably. Pretty good home keyboards, as it turns out, and in amongst the organs, personal keyboards and accompaniment units, a fair amount of modern pro musician's gear too - from the Rhapsody string synths of the seventies, to the Synthex polysynth of a couple of years back.
In fact, the history books tell us that a number of big-name 'pro' acts have used Elka equipment to propel them to the top and keep them there. Among them, Tangerine Dream with the Rhapsody, Jean-Michel Jarre with the Elka 77 organ, Geoff Downes and Keith Emerson with the Synthex, and Mike MacNeil of Simple Minds with Elka's new MIDI accordion controller.
And now, in the wake of such innovations as MIDI, digital synthesis and dynamic keyboards, the Italian company have introduced a completely new range of 'professional' hi-tech equipment. To begin with, there are two keyboards: the EK22, based on traditional analogue techniques (though under digital control), and the EK44, along more purist digital lines. There are also modular expander versions of each.
These new instruments follow (at quite some distance, time-wise) in the footsteps of the Synthex. This was Elka's first attempt at a polyphonic synthesiser, and in this reviewer's opinion, one of the finest of the analogue breed ever designed. The Synthex was the first polyphonic to use digitally-controlled oscillators with analogue waveforms, sync, ring mod and cross pulse width modulation, plus an in-built digital sequencer. Even when MIDI threatened to leave it behind, Elka refused to abandon the Synthex and (unlike many other manufacturers of the time, who used MIDI to sell newer machines) came up with a MIDI update which supported all 16 MIDI channels and the sequencer.
The two new keyboards have several things in common with each other, despite the different ways they go about shaping sound. They both boast velocity- and pressure-sensitivity from a five-octave weighted keyboard, and they use the same 32-character display angled to prevent stage-light glare.
Both hold 96 sounds internally, split between 64 factory presets and 32 user locations. These can be augmented with ROM (factory sounds) or RAM (user storage) cartridges, each with 64 sounds. For live work, they both have 16 Performance Registrations which hold the assignments of various sound programs to associated keyboard modes and split points. And to cap it all, both are built into the same casing, and have front-panel layouts that are very similar.
But don't let any of this kid you for a moment. Internally, these machines are as different as chalk and cheese. You might say they exemplify the two most popular schools of synthesis at opposite ends of the spectrum; one completely digital, the other an amalgam of traditional analogue techniques.
Of the two, the EK44 has the more immediately impressive paper spec. It's an 18-voice instrument with eight oscillators per voice, making a mammoth total of 144 oscillators. The keyboard assignments available allow these to be used in different ways. In Dual mode, you can play nine notes with two sound programs on each note, while in Split Mode you can have nine notes with a different sound on each side of the split point. But most impressive, Multi Split mode lets you spread nine zones across the keyboard (ie. eight split points), with complete dynamic allocation between them. This means you can play all the available notes at once (continuously changing the zones you're playing in), and they will be assigned a timbre depending on where on the keyboard they're located.
Let's go back to the beginning and look at how the EK44 goes about its fundamental business - synthesising sound. Looking through the parameter list on the front panel, I had a definite sense of déjà vu. Terms like Envelope Scaling, Feedback and Pitch Envelope Level will certainly ring bells with most keyboard players, unless they've been on an expedition up the Amazon for the last three years.
It all sounds a little like FM synthesis to me, but the configuration of the eight oscillators in the process is shrouded in mystery. Exactly what lies behind the parameter named Oscillator Combination is not explained on the front panel (though the envelope and level scalings are shown diagrammatically), and there was no manual available at the time of the review. But call up one of the presets and step through the possible Oscillator Combinations (which are referred to by number only), and it does sound very similar to what happens when you step through the algorithms on a DX.
The first 12 Edit parameters are grouped together as Oscillator Controls, and when you call them up, you discover that the settings for all eight oscillators are shown simultaneously.
The oscillator whose parameter value you're altering is shown by a flashing cursor. In Edit mode, the first eight Performance Registration buttons allow you to select which oscillator you want to work on, while the second eight allow you to toggle each oscillator on and off. This system works fine: you can keep your eye on what is going on with all eight oscillators simultaneously.
Each oscillator has a six-parameter envelope covering Attack, Decay, Sustain (Level and Rate), Release and Scaling values. To avoid confusion here, both envelope shape and scaling rates are represented diagrammatically on the EK44's panel. The two sustain parameters, Level and Rate, are worth noting as they allow you to make sustain either a constant level (as in the standard ADSR), or a second decay (by entering a Rate greater than zero) suitable for percussive envelopes like pianos, guitars and so on. You can also program the amount of keyboard velocity effect for each oscillator, as well as how the level of each increases or decreases as you go up and down the keyboard (Level Scaling Sign and Amount).
"Background: The two new keyboards have several things in common with each other, but internally they're as different as chalk and cheese."
The second set of Edit parameters deals with shared parameters for the whole sound. Including the mysterious Oscillator Combination already mentioned, these range from the overall pitch envelope and the LFO (Vibrato) settings to the programmable Chorus.
For me, the last item is where the EK44 scores over any other digital synth. There isn't a single electronic instrument which doesn't benefit from being put through a chorus unit, and now that the likes of Sequential and E-mu have started putting these devices on upmarket keyboards, built-in chorus sections are shaking themselves free of the stigma that associated them with cheap 'cure rather than prevention' instruments. What baffles me is that, with all the criticism levelled at digital synths for their clinical lack of warmth, nobody has thought of putting a chorus unit on a digital machine before. But now Elka have taken this step, and I have to say that when you add the chorus to certain programs, the EK44 produces a warmth and movement which many musicians have just about decided digital synths can't do. For adding that Leslie effect to organ sounds, there's nothing better.
Once you've set up a program that's to your liking, you can use the Level parameter to match levels between different programs. This is useful, because although there are 'live' sliders controlling the volume of each sound when you're in Split or Double mode (so you can make adjustments on stage if necessary), you can use this programmable level to 'preset' balances in these modes, making concert life that little bit more problem-free.
Level is the last of the 27 Edit parameters - those which are stored as part of a sound program. But there are another 23 Function parameters which govern the setup of the EK44 in general. These are grouped into Modulation, DCG, Transpose, Split & MIDI Edit, and MIDI Function On/Off.
The first of these covers the range and amount of pitch-bend, modulation (vibrato) and portamento. Next come the controls for the DCGs (Digital Control Generators - Elka's jargon for the EK44's voicing). These cover specifying Detune amounts between the two sound programs in Dual mode, and assigning the pitch range over which the voices sound in Split. The first of these allows further fattening up of the sound (especially if you use the same program on each DCG), while the second allows you to establish zones (overlapping if required) where the different programs will sound on the keyboard.
As well as fairly standard facilities in the Transposition section (Semitone and Fine Tuning), there's an unusual third option called Arabian Scale. Now, either this is an immensely subtle effect (involving microtones of detuning) or else it just wasn't implemented on the prototype EK44 I had for review: I certainly couldn't hear any difference.
Parameters 10,11 and 12 are utility functions: Edit Recall allows you to compare edited versions with original presets, while Voice Initialisation allows you to start programming from scratch. Program Sequence Recorder allows you to string an order of programs together, which can then be advanced through using a footswitch.
Now we come to my favourite section of the EK44: Split and MIDI Edit. This is where the instrument excels by taking a leaf out of the multi-sampling book, à la Sequential and Akai. Using the Multi Split mode I mentioned at the start, you can designate eight separate split points across the keyboard, and better still, assign a different MIDI channel for each, which allows for complete external multi-timbral control of the machine from a sequencer via MIDI Mode 4 - still with full dynamic allocation of polyphony. What this piece of jargonese means is that you can play, say, five notes in one zone (or on one MIDI channel) and five in (or on) another, and the next second, you can be playing in different areas (or receiving notes on different MIDI channels), without needing any pause for the synth to reset itself. You can also specify modulation, portamento and pedal controls separately for each zone or channel.
As far as the transmission and reception of MIDI data goes, Modulation data (pitch-bend, mod amount, portamento and the rest), program changes and System Exclusive info can be enabled or disabled at will. But on the prototype I reviewed, the Second Touch (otherwise known as aftertouch or pressure-sensitivity) data couldn't be disabled as it could on the EK22. One of the biggest problems using the DX7 with a MIDI sequencer is that MIDI aftertouch data (which can't be disabled even if it's not routed anywhere on the machine) uses up loads of memory and drastically reduces the number of notes you can record. Nowadays, many dedicated and computer-based sequencers have a MIDI data filter which can be used to remove such memory-wasting data, but I hope the EK44 will soon emulate its analogue brother in this respect.
But enough of these parameter discussions. How does the thing sound? Things begin well with what is perhaps the best synthesised acoustic piano sound I have yet heard, coupled with excellent touch response. This is followed by a splendidly distorted Hammond sound, complete with key-click and Leslie. A quick run through the rest of the presets reveals several sounds very reminiscent of the DX range, in name as well as sound (Syn Clav, Evolution, Koto and Steel Drum are a few), but listening to the strings and organ sounds reveals the benefit of that built-in chorus unit - they're richer than anything you could ordinarily obtain from a digital synth.
"EK44 Spec: The first eight buttons allow you to select which oscillator you want to work on, while the second eight let you toggle each oscillator on and off."
I'll confess right now that I'm no great lover of all-digital synthesis. For me, nothing will replace the speed and flexibility of an analogue filter. But I have to admit that the EK44 is a damn good machine which not only performs beautifully in the creation of digital sounds, but performs impressive imitations of analogue timbres as well. If you're looking for the best of both worlds, this could well be the solution to your dilemma.
In much the same way as the EK44 invites comparison with the Yamaha DX range, so the EK22 will inevitably be compared with the original Synthex by anyone who has used it.
Obviously, some compromises have had to be made to achieve the reduction in price (less than a third of the Synthex's original asking price). A prime example is the substitution of digital parameter access (which, sadly, people almost accept without complaint nowadays) for old-fashioned switches and sliders. But on the whole, the EK22 upholds the tradition well.
Both the EK22 and its expander version (the EM22) use digital control techniques to recreate conventional analogue methods of synthesis. Thus the EK22 has much in common with the Synthex, and because it is velocity- and pressure-sensitive, it actually goes well beyond the scope of its predecessor as far as expression is concerned.
The EK22 is six-voice polyphonic, splittable 5/1 or 1/5 across the same five-octave weighted keyboard as the EK44. The factory programs give a good range of the sort of standard sounds people seem to want - the ol' piano, strings and brass - but also feature more interesting and creative sounds like Sync Lead and Filt Wave.
Each of the two oscillators (DCOs) can play a mix of Wave A (a pulse with width variable from 50% - a square wave - to 95%) and Wave B (a triangular waveform variable in eight stages between a straight sawtooth and a pulse triangle). So, Wave B can produce waveforms not previously available on any synth, while Wave A covers the full range of pulse waveforms. In addition, the pulse width of Wave A can be continuously modulated by the LFO. This produces PWM (Pulse Width Modulation), the process responsible for some of the fattest sounds available from any type of synthesis. My only regret here is that Elka haven't included the cross-PWM between oscillators which was so successful on the Synthex.
This time, though, Elka are offering another innovation in the DCO section: Cutoff Cross Modulation. This modulates the filter cutoff frequency using the oscillators, so that if you set the filter to oscillate (by turning the resonance up to full), you can create FM-type sounds, like the electric piano and bell programs resident in the factory collection.
This is just one of the routings available in the DCO1/DCO2 parameter section, which also offers envelope control of oscillator balance, either direct or via keyboard velocity sensing.
Another feature of the Synthex carried over to the EK22 is the ability to Sync the frequency of DCO2 to that of DCO1. This, coupled with the fact that you can independently shift the pitch of either oscillator, produces a whole range of 'sync-sweeps', as favoured by the Jan Hammers of this world.
The EK22's envelopes are actually more flexible than those of the EK44. In addition to the standard Attack, Sustain and Release parameters, there are two decay rates available, with a breakpoint to specify at what level the envelope moves from the first rate to the second. This is useful - in conjunction with a zero sustain level - for creating percussive envelopes like those of pianos or guitars, which never sustain at a constant level, but decay continuously at a changing rate. The action of each envelope over the keyboard range can be varied using the Key Follow parameter, and this can be used to do standard things like filter tracking, or for more unlikely effects like changing pitch-bend as you go up and down the keyboard.
The two envelopes are not simply hardwired to the VCA and VCF. The VCA is always controlled by envelope 1, but either envelope can be assigned to control the pitch of either oscillator, the oscillator balance, or the filter.
"EK22 Spec: You can modulate the filter cutoff frequency using the oscillators, so if you set the filter to oscillate, you can create FM-type sounds."
This flexibility is carried over to the EK22's touch-sensitivity. Keyboard velocity can be assigned to the attack of either envelope, the level of the VCA or the filter cutoff. Second Touch can also be used to shift the cutoff, or to introduce vibrato from the LFO. Alternatively, vibrato can be introduced automatically by the LFO delay time.
As I've said, no synth is too good to benefit from a chorus unit, especially if the setting is stored as part of each relevant program. On the EK22, the strings and organ sounds benefit enormously from this. Finally, when you have set up your program, you can preset the volume to match levels against the other sounds you'll be calling up, just as you can with the EK44.
Similarly, you can set up 16 Performance Registrations, each of them needing only a single button to select it. Each of these will remember not only two program numbers (if you're using the keyboard split) but also the split point, and which of the sounds you're using monophonically.
Other performance parameters include transpositions and tuning (again the Arabian Scale setting crops up), wheel amounts and MIDI parameters. The EK22's MIDI implementation allows for separate channels when the keyboard is split, and data for program changes, System Exclusive codes, aftertouch, wheels and pedals to be enabled or disabled. The EK22 also shares the Program Sequence Recorder of its digital counterpart, so you can use a footswitch to step through a predefined series of sounds. Footswitches can also be used to switch sustain or portamento on and off, and volume can be controlled via a pedal.
Now we come to a bone of contention. Both the new Elka keyboards use the Roland-style 'bender' system for their performance controllers, forcing you to control pitch-bend with left-to-right movement, and modulation by pushing forward. Personally, I find the former action unnatural (somehow I always want to move something up and down to control pitch, even though we play across the keyboard to do a similar job), while the latter allows no subtlety in performance the way a continuous wheel does.
MIDI implementation on the EK22 isn't quite as flexible as on its digital counterpart (multi-timbral operation is a lot more costly to implement on analogue machines because each voice channel needs separate hardware), but in Split mode, each side of the keyboard can operate on a separate MIDI channel. What's more, there is the real bonus of being able to disable the transmission of aftertouch information (as well as modulation, program-change, pedal and System Exclusive data) to save clogging up sequencer memory with unwanted data.
All in all, the EK22 strikes me as being a more than competent analogue synth with a good range of editing facilities and, crucially, the ability to make noises you would normally associate with FM or PD synthesis.
This confirms the suspicion I gained using the EK44: namely that these two Elka synths allow you to choose the programming structure and terminology (analogue or digital) you feel more at home with, rather than forcing you to select between two radically different families of sounds.
Now, throughout this review, I've said very little about the modular versions of the analogue and digital synths. This is because, internally, they are identical to their keyboard counterparts. But because of their diminished size, the modules don't have space for parameter and preset lists or explanatory configuration diagrams on their front panels; you might find that, in use, you have to keep referring to the manual.
But unlike some keyboardless synths (most notably the Yamaha TX range), the new Elkas do at least allow you to do all your programming on the modules themselves - you don't need to buy an EK44 to make new sounds on an EM44. And the modular versions accept the same cartridges as the keyboards.
I find it a little strange that the modules haven't been made to be 19" rack-mounting; surely the whole point of modular synths is to get them out of the way by putting them in a rack? Oh well...
"Conclusions: These two synths allow you to choose the programming structure and terminology you feel more at home with, rather than forcing you to select between two families of sounds."
The Elka modules don't cost a great deal less than the keyboards, and if you can get a velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard for only a little extra, I'd guess most people will go for them. Still, some musicians will inevitably prefer the compactness of the modules, especially if they already have MIDI controllers that have keyboards and performance controls they feel more comfortable with.
Gear in this article:
Review by Paul Wiffen
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!